Mother Earth Living

Urban Community: Building Shared Housing in Run-Down Urban Areas

Vacant urban areas offer opportunities for new residential communities where seniors, singles and families with small children can feel safe.
By Ross Chapin
April 2011 Web
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The terrace off the second level provides a well-used space for families to get together for dinner, as well as an overlook to the parking court and street below.
Photo By Ken Gutmaker
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The following is an excerpt from Pocket Neighborhoods by Ross Chapin (Taunton, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 21: Urban Homesteads. 

Urban areas often have an abundance of marginal, obsolete properties. Left vacant, these can become targets of vandalism, drug deals, and other misadventures. On the positive side, they can also offer affordable opportunities for new residential communities near transit lines, employment, shops, and cultural activities. A single household might feel vulnerable in an urban environment like this, but living together in a pocket neighborhood of 10 to 30 households allows residents—including women, children, and seniors—to feel safe in an urban setting.

Their sense of security is strengthened by design patterns that foster social interaction and keep “watchful eyes” on the common areas.

Doyle Street Community 

The building occupied by the Doyle Street Community in Emeryville, California, was originally a deserted warehouse on a scant 1⁄3-acre site in an industrial section of town. It is now home to 12 households, who live in apartments surrounding a shared courtyard.

Architects Chuck Durrett and Katy McCamant took lead roles in this project, not only in organizing the effort, but also in actually living there. “When we first sought people interested in being part of this community,” remembers McCamant, “all we had to show was an empty warehouse in a ‘questionable’ neighborhood.” The area was struggling with drugs and violence and spotted with deteriorating older homes and small industrial buildings. “Nevertheless, the idea of an urban community attracted a mix of singles, families, and elders who helped us develop the design, champion the project through a tough planning approval process, and raise predevelopment funding.”

The individual units, ranging in size from 780 sq. ft. to 1,600 sq. ft., reflect the character and personality of the original building, with its brick walls, corrugated metal siding, level changes, and large, multipaned industrial windows. The upper apartments take advantage of the vaulted ceiling and loft space to put every cubic foot to use. Terrace and patio spaces outside the apartments invite neighbors together for impromptu meals, card games, and conversation. On the ground level, at the hinge of the L, is the Common House—including kitchen and dining space for shared meals, a children’s playroom, workshop, rec room, and laundry facilities.

Watching Eyes

Security through “watching eyes” is built into the design. All private entries and most kitchens look onto the courtyard, and the Common House is visible to all who enter. McCamant, a mother with a young daughter, says, “I would not have felt safe living in one of the single-family homes in the area. But here we have a place that feels comfortable for single women, seniors, and families with small children—usually the most vulnerable in cities. A strong sense of community—not security gates—provides our safety.”

Swan’s Market 

Tucked in the heart of a bustling commercial and cultural center in downtown Oakland, California, is a community of 37 people in 20 apartments clustered around a shared courtyard. This pocket neighborhood is located within a compound of structures called Swan’s Market, named after a public market dating from 1917. The historic building covers an entire city block and includes a mix of small shops and offices, a crafts market, a café, a children’s art museum, and galleries.

An understated gray gate off of a busy street belies the vibrant community found inside. Two rows of metal-clad apartments front onto a central pedestrian lane, open to the sky through a framework of structural roof trusses. This secluded space is a refuge from the city where residents take advantage of the ample light to plant gardens and grow flowers outside their red front doors. On warm nights they can be found using the community barbeque near the garden, enjoying Ethiopian food in the community room, or pursuing hobbies like coffee roasting inside the workshop.

Berkeley Cohousing Community 

Cohousing models can be effective in jump-starting an urban residential project. Berkeley Cohousing in California’s Bay Area is one such example. This community began with a group of future residents acting on a shared dream. They bought a ¾-acre site with a number of run-down buildings on a busy thoroughfare and transformed it into a pocket neighborhood of 14 households and a Commons Building. The process involved working with the city to create a special ordinance allowing affordable residential ownership in the area.

Architects Durrett and McCamant worked with the group to come up with a plan to rehabilitate four existing dwellings and add four new dwellings. Individual units range in size and style—from small, 570-sq.-ft. Craftsman cottages to a renovated 950-sq.-ft. Mission-style house and a two-story 1,120-sq.-ft. shingled duplex—an eclectic mix held together by the central green. The group minimized the size of their homes to make them more affordable but also to allow for extensive common facilities.

The original “big house” on the property, a 1,600-sq.-ft. Craftsman bungalow, was renovated to become the Commons House, complete with a shared kitchen and dining area, living room, children’s play room, office, and laundry facilities. A guest room for general use is also included, reducing the need for space in each private home.

The cluster of homes focuses on a central lawn anchored with a mature Norfolk pine, which children make full use of before and after community dinners. Along the walkway, in a spot with full sun, is the community garden, supplying vegetables year round. Access into the shared commons is through a gate from a common parking lot off the street.

Environmental concerns were a high priority for the group from the outset. Indoor air quality and ongoing energy costs were considered in light of a tight construction budget, and priority was given to use of no/low-toxic materials, passive solar design techniques, and efficient heating systems. A number of residents have chosen to “go carless,” taking advantage of easy access to community transit, car-pooling, and Berkeley’s “Zipcar” car-sharing membership program.


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